The Theoretical Concerns of the Wide Sargasso Sea

“Jane Eyre” versus “Wide Sargasso Sea”

A renowned Caribbean literary author, Jean Rhys writes “Wide Sargasso Sea” as a reconsideration whereby, the mad-woman, Antoinette Mason, who was silenced in “Jane Eyre”, is unsilenced to give her own story. Re-reading and re-inscribing a 19th-century literary text as “Jane Eyre” by Rhys offers the opportunity for the colonial subject’s perceptions to be heard concerning England and the mission it had. Literature has continually been used since the middle of the 19th century to influence cultural literacy as well as underscore cultural power (Opreanu, 2005). This paper discusses how the issues of race and gender in Wide Sargasso Sea challenge and alter the metanarratives of the original text of “Jane Eyre”. This paper further seeks to determine if such a theoretical concern can be related to typical post-colonial themes and issues.

 “Jane Eyre” is 19th-century British literature fraught with imperialism. Like the rest of the novels at the time, authors attempted to change history to suit the desired interest by the use of literary works. Posterity’s understanding of history thus relies on the side that literature renders it. This paper is only focused on two major concerns in the metanarratives of “Jane Eyre” and these include race and gender. Race in this context was the relation between the English and the non-English subjects while gender refers to the treatment of female and male subjects (Solomon, n.d.). The voice that is heard in “Jane Eyre” is only the English side and the others are introduced into the British culture in terms of gender and race and are labelled as savages, mad or of transgressive sexuality.

This paper explores how Rhys in her novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” presents a contradictory combination of reliance on a pretext and artistic originality and autonomy and consequently fills the spaces in “Jane Eyre” by use of intertextual stratagems. Rhys’s book is inspired by “Jane Eyre” and is a deconstruction of the latter novel. “Wide Sargasso Sea” is in a way a sequel to the occurrences described in “Jane Eyre”, in particular, the story of Antoinette Mason. Rhys presents a more nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of this woman who was caught up in a repressive colonial and patriarchal environment. This made her hang in between being a white European and being a black Jamaican. “Wide Sargasso Sea” attempts to explore the past of Antoinette Mason’s disturbed maniac, by depicting her sympathetically (Pollanen, 2012). Mason is no longer considered mad but for whom she really is; a woman with dreams and feelings.

Rhys fleshes out the madwoman character in “Jane Eyre” and traces her growth from being a young Jamaican girl to a love-deprived lunatic who is locked up in her British husband’s cold house. Rhys enabled readers to empathize with Mason’s mental and emotive decline by humanizing her tragic condition. “Wide Sargasso Sea” presents a theoretical concern that is related to the post-colonial themes and concepts of colonialism and racial conflicts. There are wide cultural differences between Mason and her British husband that is unbridgeable which “Wide Sargasso Sea” describes in gender terms as a patriarchal and a diverse concern on colonialism and the subsequent racial discrimination. “Jane Eyre” set is based on Jamaica’s condition as a British colony in 1830s where the English dominated blacks with the notion that they were superior, powerful and civilized while they considered blacks as inferior, primitive and less-developed (Cappello, 2009). Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” is a post-colonial text that discusses patriarchy and racism. 

“Jane Eyre” presents history from a colonial conception which attempts to suppress people of a different class and race by marginalizing and discriminating against them. On the other hand, “Wide Sargasso Sea” reframes history from a post-colonial conception which gives voice to the silenced and deprived by narrating the madwoman’s story from a different view. Further, it presents a different racial perspective by narrating and interpreting the feministic struggle of the Victorian woman from a West Indian viewpoint. Whereas “Jane Eyre” only concerns itself with voicing the writer’s strong bitterness towards gender and class disparity within England, “Wide Sargasso Sea” deals with a global issue of racism and colonialism (Mzoughi, 2016).

“Jane Eyre” uses two characters; Jane and Antoinette but Jane, an English citizen is empowered while the latter character is reduced to a marginalized and voiceless individual. Rhys depicts the struggles that Jane undergoes as less complex since they are clear and have a feasible organization whereas those of Antoinette is complicated and harder to overcome. This is because Jane easily fitted in the Victorian feministic transformation since she conforms to the colonial ideology while Antoinette’s case is much more complicated since the Europeans are trying to entirely eliminate their culture and impose a new one on them. Rhys’s book affirms that an individual’s notion of racial belonging is socially constructed (“A Postcolonial Reading,” n.d.). Antoinette’s struggle to establish her own identity of whether she was a black or a European in terms of cultural belonging and the problems the colonial subjects faced led to her madness.

“Wide Sargasso Sea” uses Antoinette to clearly bring out the issue of gender since her husband Rochester regards her as a lunatic since she does not conform to his English standards of morals and behaviour. The patriarchal nature of the society is shown as a dominant one where Antoinette is discriminated against and dominated by her husband who attempts to alienate her and rejects her. Her husband’s behaviour is ascribed to her colonial notions as well as her patriarchal upbringing. Antoinette’s life transforms swiftly from a young beautiful Jamaican to a locked woman, who despite being locked attempts to win Rochester’s heart by conforming to his standards but her racist husband considers her below his race and therefore cannot meet the standards (Peterson et al., n.d.).

“Wide Sargasso Sea” creates a more varied and stereotyped Jamaican culture. The writer illustrates the complex racial categorization of blacks, whites, and coloured and how the particular colonial past of each island led to a rich blend of cultures. The novel gives Antoinette the ability to air her own notions about England which are imposed on her by her husband who considers England a metropolitan centre. This is a very inaccurate view of how England is. Antoinette’s suppressed views on the unspoken English participation in the slave trade are shown as she becomes aware that she is the daughter of a slave owner. The prejudices are shown in Antoinette’s practice of only naming her black servants as well as the descriptive language she uses to describe Daniel Cosway (Opreanu, 2005).

“Wide Sargasso Sea” connects slavery and repression of the white Creole females. By demystifying the relation of Antoinette and Rochester, the writer shows that these two represent the colonizer and colonized. Antoinette is enslaved economic-wise since all her fortunes in her married life are at the disposal of her husband. The novel compares Antoinette’s state to Christophine’s perceived poor but independent state. Christophine advises Antoinette with respect to her sexual and emotional enslavement regarding her emotions towards Rochester but Antoinette considers it impossible. Rhys’s novel compares Antoinette and Amélie the black servant, with whom Antoinette’s husband engages in a sexual activity, therefore, betraying her. This clearly depicts Rochester as behaving like the characteristic white men who sexually assault their black servants (Mzoughi, 2016). Amélie is shown as smart and emotionally strong since she uses the money she was given to escape to Rio as compared to Antoinette, whose culture has not adequately prepared for that kind of survival.

The racial aspect that “Wide Sargasso Sea” brings out challenges the metanarratives of “Jane Eyre” by use of Rochester. While “Jane Eyre” presents the English mission as a moral and religious one meant to aid in the improvement of the colonial subjects, Rhys’s novel demystifies that that was a disguise to economically exploit the subjects. Rhys uses Rochester to illustrate this by showing that his assumptions of moral righteousness are unfounded and he is just a colonial exploiter (Pollanen, 2012). Rochester has been brought up in an English setting which offers him a series of moral views that he unfavourable uses to measure the Caribbean culture.

Conclusion

“Wide Sargasso Sea” can be described as an exposé of the English hypocrisy that the former novel had masked. It has clearly shown how the gender and racial aspects are defined by the English colonizers by use of Rochester who confirms this in the following ways; he sexually mistreats Amélie by treating her in the way of slave owners, and he fears the different “others” and this makes him drawback and withdraw to safety in his European belonging. Further, he alienates Antoinette as he changes her name with a view to make her more like himself that is English and make her abandon her Caribbean culture. He discriminates against her as he regards her as an epitome of a degenerate culture. Therefore, this theoretical concern may be termed a post-colonial critique of “Jane Eyre” and its colonial context.